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How to get 4 billion unconnected people online

Rob Pegoraro
·Contributing Editor
Facebook's internet drone.
4 billion people still don’t have access to the internet, and companies like Facebook are trying to change that.

A large fraction of the world’s population will never read this post. Some of you may regard that as desirable, but most of the people involved — about 4 billion according to the U.S. Agency for International Development will miss this story because they simply have no internet access.

And that problem isn’t just confined to the developing world. Unfortunately, as a lineup of speakers at the “Internet Inclusion: Advancing Solutions” conference in Washington explained, dealing with this global internet access shortage won’t be a quick fix. Still, there are a multitude of individuals and organizations seeking to to address the issue. Here’s how.

No wireless coverage

In the U.S., most people can count on having at least mobile broadband. That’s not so in developing countries. A July 2016 report from GSMA, the trade group that runs the Mobile World Congress trade show, estimated that some 1.6 billion of the 4.2 billion people offline at the end of 2015 lived outside a 3G coverage area.

Why? The report estimated that remote areas had double the operating expenditure of urban markets and 30% higher capital expenditure.

“When a dominant ISP has a marginal dollar to invest, they will invest in urban areas,” said John Garrity, a senior connectivity advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development, during a panel at the conference, which was hosted by the technical group IEEE.

Inadequate wired infrastructure

The U.S. isn’t immune, as the many of you with only one company selling a high-speed connection — or with none at all — can attest.

“In the one place where you’d expect this problem to have been solved, it hasn’t,” said Vint Cerf, co-author of the internet’s core TCP/IP language (short for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), chief internet evangelist at Google (GOOG, GOOGL) and co-founder of the People Centered Internet project.

An ensuing discussion on the need to ease building broadband infrastructure did not mention how many times Congress has punted away a chance to require adding conduits connections for broadband in new road and rail projects.

The usual business models don’t work

Speakers agreed that it’s a mistake to expect traditional internet-provider business models to fix this issue but didn’t agree on which other ones would.

Take “zero rating,” the practice of not counting some sites against a data cap. Even staunch opponents of the practice in the U.S. have allowed that it could help get people online in developing countries, and a February report by US AID — which led off by bluntly stating that “the market alone will not close the access gap” — cautiously endorsed it.

Cerf remains unconvinced.

“The thing which I find offensive is the zero rating case where what you get is access to some proprietary service that is not internet,” he said in an interview after the event. He noted Facebook’s “Free Basics” program to underwrite zero-rated access to itself and other sites deemed relevant: “Some people might come away thinking Facebook is the internet.”

Panelists did agree that in some cases, only community-owned networks would likely accomplish the job — a notion that often earns cries of “socialism!” in the U.S.

Neither does traditional connectivity technology

The US AID report and panelists’ testimonies offered some fascinating examples of the lengths required to make internet access available in places where geography and markets don’t favor it.

Think, for example, of building “mesh networks” linking Wifi signals together in villages or reusing vacant “white space” TV spectrum for data use. The results may not deliver speeds desirable in the U.S., but that may not matter.

Don Means, founder of the Gigabit Libraries Network, commented during one panel: “The value of the first megabit is greater than the next 999.”

U.S. companies like Google and Facebook (FB) have earned attention for such futuristic ventures as broadcasting internet access from balloons or solar-powered drone aircraft, but they got little attention at the event. Neither did “5G” wireless—understandably so, since it’s years from commercial deployment in first-world markets.

National governments shut it off

This is an easy risk to forget in the States, but in other countries with state-owned telecommunications monopolies, internet shutdowns can be a common policy tool to suppress dissent. Cameroon, for instance, just ended a 94-day internet blackout in its English-speaking areas, and state governments in India frequently do the same.

Peter Micek, general counsel at the advocacy group Access Now, said during a panel that this shutdown cost Cameroon $4.5 billion. “The internet is pushing back,” he said.

Lack of digital literacy

The notion of sustainability kept coming up — you can’t parachute in a bunch of routers and expect them to maintain themselves. You need local expertise and interest.

A typical comment during a panel from Christopher Yoo, founder of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition: “If you don’t train the barefoot engineers, it will go down.”

Don’t forget this basic element of civilization: Without reliable electricity, your connectivity is likely to be short-lived. In one panel, Veriown CEO Steve Johanns noted how much overlap you can see between a map of the 3.5 billion people without broadband and the 1.2 billion off the grid.

The rapid growth of renewable energy promises to help with that, but Cerf noted that battery capability needs to take a leap or two forward to allow electricity to flow all night and during long stretches of without wind.

Lack of interest

Finally, some people just don’t consider the internet useful. As US AID’s Garrity said in a panel: “There’s always going to be a segment of a population that won’t adopt X technology.”

In our chat afterwards, Cerf noted recent work by the Pew Research Center finding that a third of non-internet users just didn’t want to go online: “They didn’t see why it was useful — which was very disappointing to me, but still an important observation.”

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.